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FLASH ALERT: KABUL INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT UNDER HIGH THREAT FROM FURTHER TACTICS EMPLOYED BY ISIS-K

Team: Weapons and Tactics (W/T) Team

Week of: Monday, August 23, 2021


US Marines assisting evacuation efforts at Kabul Airport[1]


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is issuing a FLASH ALERT due to the high possibility of further attacks on US allies, allied forces and civilians by the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. ISIS-K is VERY LIKELY to continue exploiting evacuation efforts and carry out further attacks on crowds that are gathered at the airport. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby has confirmed that the blast near the airports’ Abbey Gate was part of a complex attack. US officials have stated that the suicide bomber was wearing a 25-pound explosive vest that resulted in multiple US military and civilian casualties.[2] The most recent reports have determined that there are 13 US service members dead, over 200 injured, and 180 civilians killed.[3] US National Security Advisors confirmed the group is targeting vital evacuation efforts being executed by the US and other countries, endangering thousands of Americans and Afghan allies.[4] ISIS-K is very likely to continue exploiting these efforts and carry out several more attacks on crowds. US military and counterterrorism officials have monitored the threat of ISIS in Afghanistan and observed that thousands of ISIS prisoners have been released in Kabul and surrounding areas due to the situation unfolding over the past weeks.[5] This strongly intensifies the risk of further attacks and raises concern about ISIS’ increasing strategic capabilities to undermine both the US and the Taliban.


CTG is on HIGH alert regarding the further exploitation of the situation at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport by ISIS-K members, and is considering in detail the tactics they may additionally apply that have been used by the group in the past. The suicide bombing attacks at the airports' Abbey gate and the Baron Hotel, as well as the small arms fire that followed, raise major concerns since these tactics are highly likely to be deployed again. The use of suicide vehicle-borne explosive devices (SVBIED) is also very probable and likely to occur. An SVBIED could be used by ramming a gate of the airport and detonating near a vulnerable crowd or near an aircraft, military or commercial, carrying passengers. Vulnerabilities regarding physical security outside the airport increase this risk, which is on the other side relatively contained by the decision to shut down roads around the airport’s perimeter. However, the shutdown is also probably creating new targets for this kind of attacks, like street security forces’ checkpoints and vehicles. Given the number of casualties and injured people, ISIS-K likely sees the developments of August 26, 2021 as a success, which may result in them having the momentum necessary to carry out increasingly devastating attacks in the very near future. The drone strike carried out by the US from the Nangarhar province on an IS member due to intelligence indicating the group would attack again, further increases this risk of attack, specifically a revenge attack.[6] Since the airstrike killed one of their attack planners, impact might be seen on their short-term capabilities to make further attack plans.


On Sunday, August 22, 2021, US President Joe Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned about the rising threat ISIS-K poses to crowds that have gathered at Hamid Karzai International Airport in order to evacuate Afghanistan amid the collapse of the Ghani regime and the Taliban's capture of Kabul. On Thursday, August 26, 2021 at around 1830 local time, this imminent threat was confirmed by an attack on civilians and military forces at the Kabul airport. US officials confirmed that 11 US Marines, 1 soldier, and 1 sailor were killed by the attacks.[7] The threat to US and Afghan allies, as well as innocent civilians, has forced a change in evacuation approaches and has altered flights intended to secure the safety of evacuees. Alternative routes are being developed to ensure the safety of people trying to get to the evacuation zone at Kabul Airport; on August 26, around 170 Americans were picked up at a hotel meeting place and flown to safety by CH-47 Chinook helicopters to prevent them from walking through a crowd that had gathered and being exposed to further risks.[8] More than 5,000 US troops are securing the airfield inside the airport; however, the main issue remains outside of this perimeter. Outside the airport, insufficient security is being provided by the Taliban, where recent reports have shown members beating both Afghans and US citizens at checkpoints to the airport.[9] This insufficiency likely played a large role in the occurrence of the attack. Sullivan confirmed that US commanders on the ground are using an array of capabilities in order to further secure the area and are working with intelligence agencies to gather relevant intel on the ongoing threat. [10]


ISIS-K has recently deployed SVBIEDs in increasing numbers. The devices are used in areas with high levels of fortifications and security, where a person-borne IED (PBIED) may not reach the vicinity of the target – such as the Hamid Karzai International Airport. The Taliban perimeter surrounding the airport would likely not allow for a PBIED to reach close enough to inflict the desired damage on NATO forces. Local Islamic State cells will likely want to target them despite strong points of contention between the Taliban and ISIS since January 2015, when they declared war on one another.[11] For such an attack to be effective, a heavily armored SVBIED will very likely be utilized to penetrate the outer perimeter and reach NATO forces. US forces have welded up any entrances to the airport, meaning that an armored SVBIED is likely to be used in an effort to ram the gates into the compound.[12] Such damage to the wall’s perimeter would likely allow any potential gunmen to enter the airport perimeter and inflict further damage with small arms and light weapons. However, the most recent images from local sources and satellite imagery suggest that heavy traffic and congestion may make a VBIED reaching the gates of the airport extremely difficult.


The threat represents a high risk considering the ongoing relations between the Taliban and ISIS-K. The two groups have had confrontations for both political and ideological reasons.[13] The main difference between them is that the Taliban have local aims, namely resisting foreign occupation of Afghanistan; ISIS-K has wider goals, believing in the righteousness of global jihad. Geographically, ISIS and its affiliates comprise an organization that spans multiple countries and regions, while the Taliban is largely contained to Afghanistan. Although the Taliban has conquered almost all of the Afghan territory, the current instability in Afghanistan will likely create ideal target conditions for ISIS to carry out attacks. Such ideological differences between ISIS and the Taliban enhance the likelihood that ISIS-K may attack the Taliban perimeter instead of the airbase directly. An attack of this nature would likely require a reduced level of planning and coordination, based on the vulnerabilities in the areas surrounding the airfield. Increased numbers of civilians surrounding the Taliban perimeter means that an attack carried out in this area would very likely lead to high numbers of civilian casualties. Additionally, attacks on the Taliban by ISIS are likely to encourage civil war between the two militias’ sympathizers. In this scenario, ISIS-K’s number of allies and the strength the Taliban gained in the last two months would probably lead to a long-lasting collision. Moreover, if the Taliban have gained a larger amount of weapons as they claim to, in case of fights or retaliations it is likely that the number of civilian victims would be very high. This would increase instability in the country and in bordering regions. Such conflict is likely to worsen the ongoing humanitarian issues caused by lack of a unified nation state and drought.


The Taliban have recently banned any Afghan civilians without the correct identification from leaving via Hamid Karzai International Airport.[14] This decreases the probability of an individual carrying an IED making it through security forces without some form of identification, which may be hard to obtain. For these reasons, other forms of attack involving longer range weaponry may be deployed. Currently, there are few ways to prevent terrorist cells from deploying mortars or other similar rudimentary rockets into the airport’s area. Mortar fire will likely be effective and accurate as the airport is entirely static, and avoiding incoming shells would be extremely difficult. A small group could very likely deploy a weapons system such as mortars or Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) on nearby rooftops and send accurate and effective fire into the airport. Despite the fact that US forces are able to detect a rocket and neutralize it using anti-missile technologies, the possibility of a terrorist attack to at least partially succeed is high. In fact, given the situation’s precariousness and the confusion generated by the mass of people attempting to escape through foreign vehicles, the possibility of discovering a deployed long distance weapons system in time to prevent an attack is particularly low.


The risk of missile attacks to departing aircraft from Kabul airport is currently HIGH. There is little evidence that ISIS-K would have acquired any man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) from the US-supplied Afghanistan National Defense and Security Force (ANDSF). Such weapons systems are also extremely difficult to acquire, while mortar systems, 107mm Rockets and RPGs are widely available nationwide. These weapons pose a serious threat if positioned appropriately. A series of individuals along the take-off path of any large unarmored aircraft could likely cause serious harm. The flares and missile-deterrent systems currently being deployed by some departing aircraft will almost certainly have no effect on rocket-propelled warheads. ISIS-K very likely possess large numbers of shoulder fired launchers that could take down an aircraft carrying NATO military and civilian personnel. The August 26 attack against an Italian C-130 leaving Hamid Karzai International Airport as part of an evacuation process seems to confirm the credibility of the threat.[15] The plane was attacked by a barrage of machine guns just after taking off. It is likely similar attacks utilizing small arms fire will continue to affect departing evacuation flights. The utilization of homemade drone-borne IEDs is a possibility that must also be considered in the contingency plans of the airport. Off-the-shelf modified drones carrying explosive payloads could likely be utilized to inflict heavy damage to both the military and civilian population in the vicinity of the airport.


In addition to Hamid Karzai International Airport and other vulnerable sectors of the city, other areas of the country could likely be affected by terrorist attacks in the coming days. Several ISIS-K militants are stationed in the region of Nangarhar, where their stronghold is.[16] Militants will likely initiate larger attacks from this province. Attacks could also be carried out in the city of Jalalabad, where the population has already demonstrated against Taliban rule.[17] As ISIS-K have officially taken responsibility for the attack, it is evident that the organization desires to directly attack NATO troops, as well as Taliban forces and the Afghan population.[18] Therefore, political buildings like the Presidential Palace (the Arg) in Kabul could very likely become targets. Foreign armies and delegations could very likely also be targeted.


CTG recommends that all security forces increase their awareness while carrying out operations in the city of Kabul, especially in the immediate area surrounding the airport. Remaining vigiliant in looking for counterfeit identification is necessary in order to prevent further ISIS-K suicide bombers from entering the outer perimeter and carrying out another attack. Specifically, forces at checkpoints leading to the airport and at airport entrances must remain on high alert. It is advisable to develop a shared plan between the NATO forces currently present and Taliban street forces in order to monitor the areas near the airport from where mortars or rockets could be launched. The utilization of drones is encouraged to detect any threats in the area surrounding the airport. Equipment that is capable of dealing with the usage of explosive-laden drones, as used by ISIS in Syria, is crucial to negating any drone borne attacks. The focus must be placed on spotting larger armed groups gathering, ISIS flags and visible weaponry. Although the recent attacks have heightened risks associated with evacuation efforts, evacuations should be completed as soon as possible so that this risk does not increase further. To decrease the risk of evacuation aircrafts being hit, missile countermeasures must be implemented like the execution of a spiral landing if a combat landing were to be paramount.[19] It is extremely important that all roads leading to the airport have features such as bollards and chicane barriers to stop SVBIEDs from breaking the airport perimeter. The implementation of explosive detection canines by US forces and allies may vigorously contribute to detection efforts of IEDs and possible prevention of further suicide bombings.[20]


The W/T Team’s analysis indicates that there is a HIGH PROBABILITY that further attacks on US forces, allied forces, and innocent civilians will be carried out by ISIS-K at Hamid Karzai International Airport and other locations where US and NATO troops are stationed. Due to ongoing evacuation efforts, the airport itself and the surrounding area continue to present a huge vulnerability and further opportunities for the terrorist organization to exploit. The extremely crowded nature of the airport vicinity almost certainly means that spotting an individual intent on carrying out an attack is extremely difficult. Without precautions to closely monitor and vet anyone entering the near perimeter of the airport, it is HIGHLY LIKELY that a PBIED could enter the area and cause damage. An attack against the Taliban or NATO forces present at the airport would HIGHLY LIKELY encourage further civil conflict in the country.

[1]US Marines assisting evacuation efforts at Kabul airport” by Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla licensed under US Dept of Defense

[2] As U.S. Troops Searched Afghans, a Bomber in the Crowd Moved In, The New York Times, August 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/27/us/politics/marines-kabul-airport-attack.html

[3] Afghanistan news – live: Two Isis targets killed in US drone strike, as last UK evacuation plane leaves Kabul, Independent, August 2021 https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/south-asia/afghanistan-news-kabul-bomb-latest-b1910319.html

[4] ISIS terrorist threats jeopardize Afghanistan evacuation, Pentagon assessment warns, Politico, August 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/08/24/isis-terrorist-threats-afghanistan-kabul-evacuation-506807

[5] ISIS Poses ‘Acute’ Threat to U.S. Evacuation Efforts in Kabul, Sullivan Says, The New York Times, August 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/22/us/politics/isis-kabul-airport.html

[6] US airstrike targets Islamic State member in Afghanistan, Associated Press News, August 2021, https://apnews.com/article/asia-pacific-evacuations-kabul-islamic-state-group-7f146c8ae5d9e9ab225025527e421226?utm_campaign=SocialFlow&utm_medium=AP&utm_source=Twitter

[7] Navy, Army Confirm Deaths in Kabul Attack that Killed 13; 20 Wounded Arrive in Germany for Treatment, US Naval Institute News, August 2021, https://news.usni.org/2021/08/27/navy-army-confirm-deaths-in-kabul-attack-that-killed-13-18-wounded-arrive-in-germany-for-treatment

[8] US military helicopters evacuated Americans from hotel near Kabul airport, CNN, August 21, 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/08/20/politics/americans-kabul-hotel-evacuation/index.html

[9] Brutal ISIS-K affiliate in Afghanistan poses terror threat to U.S. evacuation, USA Today, August 2021, https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2021/08/22/isis-k-offshoot-poses-terror-threat-afghan-evacuation/8236541002/

[10] ISIS Poses ‘Acute’ Threat to U.S. Evacuation Efforts in Kabul, Sullivan Says, The New York Times, August, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/22/us/politics/isis-kabul-airport.html

[11] Why Taliban special forces are fighting Islamic State, BBC News, December 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-35123748

[12] US death toll in Kabul airport blast rises to 13, officials say, The Independent, August 2021 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/us-soldiers-killed-afghanistan-kabul-b1909396.html

[13] Ibid.

[14] The Taliban have recently banned any Afghans from departing from Kabul Airport, CNN, August 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/08/24/asia/kabul-airport-afghanistan-intl-hnk/index.html

[15] Afghanistan: spari contro C-130 italiano in decollo dall’aeroporto di Kabul, Nova News, August 2021, https://www.nova.news/afghanistan-spari-contro-c-130-italiano-in-decollo-dallaeroporto-kabul/#click=https://t.co/9WhmRBjaCI (translated by Rebecca Pantani)

[16] Isis-Khorasan rivendica l'attacco a Kabul, Corriere della Sera, August 2021, https://www.corriere.it/esteri/21_agosto_26/afghanistan-minaccia-terrorismo-isis-khorasan-potrebbe-pianificare-attentato-1cf8b720-0656-11ec-b525-5067ec1694a3.shtml (translated by Rebecca Pantani)

[17] Scontri a Jalalabad, vittime. Talebani: 'La Sharia è legge', Ansa, August 2021, https://www.ansa.it/sito/notizie/mondo/2021/08/18/afghanistan-scontri-per-bandiera-a-jalalabad-morti-_8fdcd088-2b71-4e37-a8a6-84c5d1b3de37.html (translated by Rebecca Pantani)

[18] Islamic State claims responsibility for Kabul airport blasts, The Guardian, August 2021 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/26/isis-affiliate-iskp-is-prime-suspect-for-kabul-airport-suicide-bomb

[19] Landing in Baghdad, Airspacemag, November 2006, https://www.airspacemag.com/flight-today/landing-in-baghdad-12635538/

[20] Detection Canine Program Person-Borne IEDInitiative Fact Sheet and Video, US Department of Homeland Security, July 2020, https://www.dhs.gov/publication/canine-explosives-detection-program

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